The best modern board games

Sling some cardboard and outwit your friends with the best board games

In case you missed it, board games have gotten really good recently. With so much of our lives mediated through screens, it’s refreshing and humanizing to play face-to-face with people. Millions of people have taken the step from the tedious Monopoly and Life of their youth to modern gateway classics such as The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Cards Against Humanity, but where do you go from there?

We’ve hand-picked this list of fantastic games to suit a wide range of players and interests, showing off just a sample of the most fun and interesting games that have been released in the last few years. With the holidays coming up, these might be just the thing you want for bringing together friends and family.

Carcassonne — 2-5 players

best board games carcassonne game example 2
Genevieve Poblano/Digital Trends

Ah, the simple pleasure of laying down tiles to build a bustling French town. What could be better? How about squatting on your friend’s plot of land and claiming it as your own, turning all their hard work into sweet, sweet points for yourself? That magical feeling can be yours in Carcassonne, a game that looks charming and simple, but hides a competitive core. Gameplay in Carcassonne is straightforward: When it’s your turn, you draw a tile at random and then place it next to one of the already-placed tiles that make up the growing landscape. Connect roads to roads, fields to fields, cities to cities, and then place your workers down to claim these features as your own. If two different areas eventually collide, the player with the most pieces there will end up scoring all the points in the end, so you have to decide whether to build in isolation, watching from afar as you friends bludgeon each other over prime land, or get in on the action yourself.

Istanbul — 2-5 players

best board games istanbul
Will Nicol/Digital Trends

The busy streets of Istanbul — if you’re a Roman displaced in time, you may know it as Constantinople — are the place to make your fortune … if you can keep track of your employees. In a typical game of Istanbul, players randomly arrange the various tiles that make up the city, and then scatter, each player scrambling to collect five rubies before anyone else. The various locations each do something unique. Go the wainwright and you can pay to upgrade your wheelbarrow, opening more space for goods. At the various warehouses, you can stock up on goods like fruits and textiles. Stop by the tea house and you can roll the dice to win money, if fortune favors you.

The key mechanism in Istanbul is your stack of assistants. When you come to a location, you need to drop off one of your assistants to use that space, or else pick up an assistant you left there earlier. Spread your assistants all over the city, and you’ll likely yourself unable to take an action you want, watching mournfully as another player nabs that easy ruby you had your eye on.

Hanamikoji — 2 players

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Will Nicol/Digital Trends

Lined up on the table between you and your opponent are the city’s seven preeminent geisha, women as skilled in the arts as they are hard to impress. To win the game of Hanamikoji, you’ll need to curry favor, plying them with gifts (represented by cards) tailored to each. What’s so interesting about the game is that, for the most part, you don’t bestow your gifts directly. At the start of a round, you and your opponent will have a hand of hards, and four actions, each of which you can only take once per round. You can stash a card away until the scoring phase, or discard two to keep your opponent from getting them. Another action allows you to reveal three cards from your hand, giving your opponent the card of their choice and keeping the others for yourself. Finally, you can create two piles with two cards each, your opponent taking one and leaving the other for you.

These four actions lead to intense decisions. Don’t let Hanamikoji’s elegant, colorful artwork deceive you. This is a game about carefully reading your opponent, an intellectual tug-of-war in which the slightest misstep can topple you into the abyss of defeat.

Fog of Love -- 2 players

Modern board gaming isn’t just about zombies and elves and space marines. Sure, there’s a ton of that, but every year the range of possible tabletop experiences grows by leaps and bounds. Enter Fog of Love: a romantic comedy board game for two. Both players create their own fictional character and work through one of several scenarios with fixed chapters and randomized scenes, charting the course of their relationship to its happy (or unhappy) ending. It’s an elegant game that strikes an incredible balance between mechanics that create an interesting puzzle to solve while keeping story and character forward, instead of getting lost in abstract min-maxing.

Fog of Love’s genesis speaks worlds about its revolutionary place in the industry Designer Jacob Jaskov played and loved hundreds of board games, but his wife was never interested in any of them. For all the industry’s growth and diversification in the last several decades, games still almost exclusively focus on external conflicts, and never on internal, character-driven stories. Jaskov developed Fog of Love for this uncompromising audience of one, and the result is an exquisitely sharp application of some of modern gaming’s best design practices and ideas, while also totally defying industry convention. Its Walmart-exclusive distribution deal in the US hopefully speaks to a radical diversification of the mainstream board gaming industry in the near future.

Walmart

Azul -- 2-8+ players

Some games are built entirely around a single idea or theme, with every mechanic designed to serve it. For others, a “theme” is just a thin aesthetic veneer over its crunchy, abstract systems. Azul, a game about laying beautiful tiles for the Portuguese royal palace, is squarely the latter. Players compete to build the most complete and aesthetically-pleasing square of colorful tiles. Drafting tiles from a shared pool, combined with rules for how to lay them or save them for future rounds, makes for a satisfying puzzle that’s easy to learn, but hard to master and plays well (and differently) at its full range of two to four players in just about half an hour.

When building a game collection, it’s important to have a range of weights and interaction-styles. Azul is a fantastic “opener” for a game night, since it plays quickly and provides a constant stream of interesting decisions without ever overwhelming players into “analysis paralysis.” It also features a pleasant level of passive-aggressive interaction (through denying tiles to other players), making it important to keep up with what your friends are doing without ever putting you into direct clashes, which can be the perfect, congenial tone that some people like to set for an evening of laughter and conversation around the table, with games as the excuse to get there.

Gloomhaven -- 1-4 players

In Gloomhaven, 2-4 players team up for a co-operative fantasy adventure campaign that spans hundreds of hours, with over a dozen, unique characters to unlock. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a video game, but no, Gloomhaven is the latest massive dungeon crawl board game to blow up on Kickstarter. Players assume the role of wandering adventurers in a persistent world full of treasure to find, monsters to hunt, and dungeons to clear, accruing new items and abilities as they go. It’s standard video game fare, but Gloomhaven has set the board gaming world ablaze for how elegantly it distills that experience into an analog format.

Fantasy dungeon crawl is a crowded genre in board games as well as video games. Historically dungeon crawls fall under the “Ameritrash” lineage, with their mechanical excess, focus on simulation, and a heavy dose of randomness. This tracks from poorly-aged classics like Hero Quest through to Gloomhaven’s immediate Kickstarter precedent, Kingdom Death: Monster. While similar in the broad strokes as ponderous coffin boxes, laden with ridiculous amounts of monsters and loot, Gloomhaven takes a more restrained and thoughtful approach than KD’s maximalism, with tighter mechanics reminiscent of European-style board games

Twilight Imperium (4th Edition) -- 3-6 players

Fantasy Flight Games

There are big board games, and then there’s Twilight Imperium. Fantasy Flight’s signature strategy game of galactic diplomacy and conquest is famously massive, hosting four to six players in a galaxy that takes up an obscene amount of table square footage, pounds of plastic miniature spaceships, and up to eight whopping hours of playtime. Every player assumes the mantle of a unique alien civilization, competing to be top dog in space in the wake of a galactic empire’s collapse. Whether you want to be savvy traders like the Ferengi, haughty imperialists like the Centauri, or a hive mind like the Formics, the expansive mechanics and broadly-sourced archetypes of TI allow for basically whatever flavor of space opera tickles your fancy.

TI’s first edition released in 1997, making it ancient by the standard of contemporary board games. Several iterations have tightened up and streamlined the rule set towards more elegant, Eurogame-style mechanics and a vastly more appealing visual presentation. The 2017 4th Edition incorporates 20 years of player feedback, making a surprisingly smooth and refined version of a game that by all rights should be massively unwieldy. There are myriad, more focused versions of the TI fantasy now available in board and video games (from Eclipse to Stellaris), but nothing quite matches the maximalist grandeur of TI 4th Edition when you want to go all-in on a day of pretending to be on Babylon 5 with your friends.

Flamme Rouge -- 2-4 players

As the themes and mechanics of modern board games grow increasingly elaborate, sometimes you just want the simple thrill of beating someone to the finish line. Flamme Rouge is a brilliant bicycle racing game that elegantly distills the real-world mechanics of team cycling into a fast, fun, strategic, and family-friendly board game. Each of 2-4 players controls two racers (a “rouleur” and a “sprinteur”), each with a corresponding deck of cards with the numbers 2-9 (the rouleur has an even spread of 3-7 while the sprinteur has a more boom-or-bust deck with twos and nines in the mix). Every turn each player draws four cards from each deck and chooses one for each of their riders to determine how far they move down the two-lane, modular track. Drafting and exhaustion mechanics encourage you to stay in packs and end with exactly one space (but no more)  between you and the next rider in a rule set that is remarkably easy to teach because of how cleanly it distills real-world cycling.

Racing games are as old as board games themselves — Snakes and Ladders traces all the way back to ancient India as a meditation on karma and morality. Note “meditation,” however: the “roll and move” mechanic at the heart of Snakes and Ladders was random and non-interactive by design, but in modern gaming “roll and move” has been relegated to children’s and “Ameritrash” games. Flamme Rouge’s card-driven racing mechanics keep some of that randomness, but temper it to put skilled decision-making front and center. As the general complexity of board game rules goes up, Flamme Rouge is an excellent reminder for the value of elegance and simplicity.

Codenames -- 2-8+ players

Espionage and associative vocabulary have never gone so well together. Codenames is a spy-themed party word game where two teams compete to locate all of their agents first. Random words are laid out in a five-by-five grid. Both teams’ spymasters can see a card that tells them which words are for each team, which are neutral, and which one is the black assassin word. The spymasters take turns saying one word and a number. Their team has that many guesses (plus one) to find the words associated with that clue. Pick correctly and the word gets covered with their color and they continue. Guess wrong and the turn passes, unless they picked the assassin word, which means they lose immediately. The first team that finds all of their words wins. It’s extremely simple and easy to teach, but the granular variability of the words makes it an interesting and challenging puzzle.

Few games have been so rapidly embraced by the community as classics as Codenames was in 2016. Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil has become a notable auteur of modern board gaming; his games, which include Space Alert, Dungeon Petz, and Galaxy Trucker, vary widely in terms of mechanics, but are generally unified by being side-splittingly hilarious. In addition to the original Codenames, the publisher has subsequently released a visual version with Codenames: Pictures and a naughty, Cards Against Humanity-inspired version called Codenames: Deep Undercover.

Junk Art -- 2-6 players

Stacking or unstacking various objects while trying to avoid knocking everything over is a classic premise for games, from classics like Jenga to more modern variants like Toc-Toc Woodman or the app-enhanced Fabulous Beasts. Junk Art is easily one of the best we’ve ever seen, however. Based around stacking oddly-shaped wooden objects into abstract sculptures, it’s actually more like 12 games in one, with assorted rule and objective variants to keep it fresh. In one game you might be drafting cards to strategically choose pieces and build the tallest sculpture, while another might see you rotating between sculptures, trying to avoid knocking them over while leaving them in dangerous positions for the next player.

Junk Art is a great example of taking a simple and accessible premise — stacking odd wooden shapes — and using smart design to squeeze as much fun out of it as humanly possible. Players of all ages can enjoy it, and the generous number of variation will ensure this party game remains fresh for some time to come.

Captain Sonar -- 2-8 players

Like Battleship, but in real time and with teams, Captain Sonar is a thrilling game of dueling submarines designed for up to eight players. It begins with two teams setting up on opposite sides of the table and dividing into different roles. The captain, for instance, charts their course on a transparency with a marker over the map and decides when to fire torpedoes, while the engineer works to maintain the sub’s systems as it takes damage. Players can also take on the role of the radio operator, who must listen to the other team’s chatter to deduce their location. It’s a tense battle of wits that requires teamwork, quick thinking, and clever deduction.

We’ve seen team-on-team duels with interlocking mini-games like this before — just take a look at the excellent Space Cadets or its spin-off, Space Cadets: Dice Duel — but combining it with hidden movement and deduction like in Letters from Whitechapel or Fury of Dracula is an absolute stroke of genius. The game also comes with five scenarios that have different maps and special rules, along with a turn-based variant for more methodical play, adding more replay value to an already great base game.

Food Chain Magnate -- 2-5 players

Players looking for a heavyweight strategy game with no randomness to foil their best-laid plans need look no further than Food Chain Magnate. Up to five players build competing fast-food chains across a variable board. The game’s strategy focuses on human resources; growing your company by hiring specialized employee cards such as pizza and burger chefs to make food, waitresses to garner tips, marketers to create desires that need fulfilling, and executives to support more employees. It’s a straight-up economic race to earn the most money before the bank runs out, but the path there is far from linear.

It’s a little like Monopoly, in that it provides the satisfaction of growing a sprawling business empire, but it’s also Chess-like in that there’s basically no hidden information and nothing left to chance. All of the individual elements of the game are quite simple, so it’s not too hard to teach, but its interlocking systems add up to an elegant and complex puzzle that will challenge and titillate the most serious strategy gamers. It also clocks in at an estimated hour per player, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s unparalleled in the experience it offers those who are up to the challenge.

Inis -- 2-4 players

The same designers that took us on magnificent, mythological adventures through Greece and Egypt with Cyclades and Kemet have rounded out the trilogy with a journey into Celtic legend. Inis sees up to four players at the head of competing clans as they explore and populate a growing kingdom of modular pieces, striving to be declared high king. It’s an area control game in the tradition of Risk, but with three different win conditions to keep players on their toes and prevent snowball victories. Our games of Inis have always been tense right up until the end.

While it doesn’t have the fantastic miniature monsters of its two predecessors, Inis doubles down on that kind of mythic variety, with every tile providing unique effects and a big deck of epic cards that feature powerful (though specific) effects and fantastically psychedelic art. The staggering combinatorics of regions and epic cards that can show up in a given game makes every play different, and helps imbue the title with interesting and challenging decisions.

Pandemic Legacy -- 2-4 players

The world is being wracked by four horrific diseases. A team of experts must race around the globe to find cures before society descends into chaos. First released in 2007, Pandemic is a tense, fun, and challenging cooperative game for two to four players. Easy to learn and hard to master, it is widely considered a classic and an excellent introduction to what modern games have to offer.

Pandemic Legacy uses that foundation for one of the most exciting and surprising games we’ve ever played. Like 2011’s Risk Legacy before it, Pandemic Legacy ties each individual session into a larger campaign, with the events of one game having permanent effects on the board and subsequent games. Each game represents one month of the year and you can play each month a second time before moving on if you fail the first attempt, with the challenge modulating up or down based on how you are doing. Every month adds new mechanics from a veritable Advent calendar of boxes and compartments full of stickers, cards, and components that alter the game in both small and sweeping ways.

All at once it would be overwhelming, but the game’s gradual evolution keeps the challenge fresh and creates a gripping and twisty narrative. Over the course of the year, cities will irrevocably fall, characters will form relationships and develop post-traumatic scars, viruses will evolve, and within even just a few games your copy of Pandemic Legacy will be unique. Don’t research too much because surprise is part of the fun; this is easily one of the best games in years.

Star Wars: Imperial Assault -- 2-5 players

This is almost as close as board games come to video games as an exciting action-RPG and tactical miniatures battle set in the Star Wars universe. In an exciting and responsive campaign, one player as the forces of the Empire competes against a team of Rebel heroes that grow more powerful and acquire better equipment as the games go on. It can also be played as a straight duel between Rebel and Empire forces. Set during the original trilogy timeline, fan favorites like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo all make appearances.

This game is huge, with heaps of modular boards to create the playing area, fistfuls of tokens and decks of all sizes, and a ton of well-sculpted plastic miniatures. The set-up time involved in sorting through all this for each mission can be a drag at first, but once you get rolling the gameplay is really fun and streamlined. It’s derived from Fantasy Flight’s fantasy dungeon crawler Descent, which is itself already in a heavily-refined second edition, so all the edges have been well sanded off. Expect endless expansions for devoted fans.

Arctic Scavengers -- 2-5 players

Mad Max meets Snowpiercer, the apocalypse has come and gone, leaving the remaining people in small tribes fighting over limited resources in the frozen wasteland wreckage of civilization. Like the popular Dominion, each player starts with a small deck of scavengers and refugees, using a new hand of them every turn to scrounge for valuable tools and medicine, hire specialized mercenaries, and fight over valuable contested resources. All of these are shuffled back into your deck, which grows throughout the game as you compete to be the largest and most powerful tribe.

A common criticism of Dominion and deck-building games derived from it is that they are not interactive enough, like passive-aggressive neighboring games of solitaire. Arctic Scavengers fixes this with the addition of holding back part of your hand for a brawl over contested resources at the end of every round, as well as snipers and other ways to directly thwart each other. Perfect for the theme, it feels scrappy and tooth-and-nail, even when you are doing well. The most recent edition includes a huge amount of modular expansions to tweak gameplay and add even more kinds of interactivity, giving long-lasting replay value to an already excellent base game.

Skull -- 3-6 players

Skull_

Supposedly popularized by biker gangs, this game played with coasters is perfect for playing at a bar. Everyone has three roses and one skull, laying them face down one at a time in front of them until one player bets on how many they can flip without finding a skull. Everyone else goes around either raising or folding until someone finally has to test their luck. Succeed twice and you’ve won the game, but find a skull and you lose one of your cards at random.

It’s like poker, but with much simpler math. Skull is a beautifully stripped-down game of bluffing and bravado that is as tense as it is easy to learn. The game is so simple that once you know the rules it’s easy to just make your own copy with a stack of coasters and a marker, which is great in a pinch at a bar, but the artwork and components are so nice that you’ll want to own the official edition.

The Metagame — 2-33+ players

Similar to Cards Against Humanity and Apples to Apples, The Metagame isn’t a single game, but rather two decks of cards and a variety of games for various amounts of people that you can play with them. One deck contains a huge range of things like the Declaration of Independence, David Bowie, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The other is a series of prompts, such as “Which will outlive us all,” “Which says the most about gender,” or “Squishy.”

It can be silly and irreverent like CAH, but it also allows you to have fun conversations and sideways, comparative thinking about a wide range of topics. There are two expansions so far, which add cards with film and sci-fi themes, respectively, so you can customize your copy to suit your friends’ interest. Like CAH, this is an easy and portable game for parties or out and about at bars and whatnot, with an added bonus of being more family-friendly.

Amazon

Spyfall -- 3-8 players

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A game of deception, one player is secretly designated a spy, and they have to figure out where they are before everyone else catches on to their identity. Every player is dealt a card with a location, such as a bank or a submarine, as well as a specific role at that place, such as the teller or the captain. The spy’s card, however, only says spy. In quick, timed rounds, players take turns asking questions of one another about where they are trying to ferret out the spy without revealing to them the location. The spy wins by figuring out where they are, surviving to the end without being caught, or by having someone else be falsely accused. Everyone else wins by finding the spy.

Spyfall is fast-playing and easy to learn, making it a great party game that leads to a lot of funny moments as players try to walk the tightrope of revealing just enough information to earn the trust of the other players without tipping off the spy, or appearing to do so if they are the spy. It also doesn’t get nearly as vindictive as other hidden role games with more of a focus on betrayal can get, like The Resistance. There is a bit of an initial hurdle as it helps to know what all of the possible locations are, so we suggest photocopying the page of the manual that shows all of them so everyone can peek at it without looking too suspicious.

Two Rooms and a Boom -- 6-30+ players

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In this hidden role party game, two randomly assigned teams split arbitrarily into two rooms. The blue team has a president, while the nefarious red team has a bomber. Over a few fast rounds of hostage exchanges between the rooms, everyone tries to figure out who’s who so they can either protect or blow up the president when time runs out.

There are very few games that scale up to so many people so well and keep everyone equally involved the whole time. Each game only takes about fifteen minutes, so it’s fast and easy for people to pick up and jump in. A huge variety of additional secret roles with special abilities can be mixed and matched in a given game to add fun variety once you’ve mastered the basics. It plays well with both old friends getting together, or as an ice-breaker for a large number of new acquaintances.

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